WASHINGTON — Let's start with the obvious: it's going to be damn hard for President Obama to get a successor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner confirmed.
The atmosphere in D.C. is hyper-partisan, a presidential election is looming and the economy is barely limping along. We need someone who has credibility with both political parties, experience working in a crisis situation, and the ability to get things done. That person is Sheila Bair. Why? Let's count the ways:
1) She has a deep knowledge of financial markets
A quick look at her biography shows she has the experience to be Treasury Secretary. She has headed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. since 2006, during the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and worked, at various times, for the Treasury Department, New York Stock Exchange, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission. She also was the Dean's Professor of Financial Regulatory Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has significant Capitol Hill experience.
2) She's a savvy political operator
Let's face it: Geithner has never been particularly well-loved by members of either political party on Capitol Hill. That is definitively not the case with Sheila Bair.
Covering banking the past decade, I have never seen someone else who can navigate controversial issues without simultaneously angering major political players as well as she does. From Wal-Mart to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, she's tackled some of the most contentious issues in financial services, and yet is still routinely praised by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. That's nearly impossible to do.
3) She's confirmable
There are few with the requisite knowledge-base and credibility with both parties who could be confirmed quickly. Bair is clearly one.
She's already gone through the vetting process twice, so it's hard to imagine there'd be any skeletons in her closet. Although she has disagreed with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., on issues like the Dodd-Frank Act, it's also clear the longtime lawmaker respects her. As a registered Republican, she pleases the right, but her record on consumer protection issues has also made her popular with the left.
"She would be confirmable," said Mark Calabria, a director of financial regulations studies at the Cato Institute and former top aide to Shelby.
4) She's ready to start on day one
Much of the speculation now centers on big business players the administration could bring in, much like President Bush did with Henry Paulson, then head of Goldman Sachs & Co. The problem with this is that sometimes it works, as was the case with Paulson, and other times it doesn't. (John Snow, I'm looking at you.) It's an attractive idea to pick non-Washington players and bring them in to shake things up, but those who are not steeped in the intricacies of this town often take a long time to get up to speed, if they ever do. This would not be the case with Bair. I have no idea, of course, if Bair would want the job. When she leaves office next week, Bair is planning to take some time with her family and write a book. But it's important to note that when asked by American Banker early this week - before the Geithner news was out -- whether she would ever want to return to government service, she said yes. "I could see coming back someday in an appointed position," she said. Obama may have to persuade her, but my guess is she wouldn't turn him down.
5) She's consistently ahead of the game (and right)
In 2007, Bair repeatedly and forcefully warned of the dangers of certain subprime loans that had adjustable teaser rates. She pushed for mass modifications that would prevent rates from rising, hoping to ward off a wave of foreclosures she saw coming. Unfortunately for the country, she was mostly ignored. I'm not saying if that had worked it would have prevented the crisis, but it might have mitigated its impact.
6) She would end "too big to fail."
Bair claims that the Dodd-Frank law gave regulators the power to take down a large bank, but the problem is few believe it. Why? Because the law relies, at least in part, on the Treasury Secretary making a determination to dismantle a large institution. Because Geithner is seen as too close to the big banks, few think he would make such a move in the midst of another crisis. Bair, on the other hand, would not hesitate to take a big bank out back and shoot it if that's what the situation called for. The markets know it, and so do the big banks. Honestly, I've never seen a regulator who scares them more. That tells you almost everything you need to know right there.